Controls on Filling and Evacuation of Sediment in Waterfall Plunge Pools

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Joel S Scheingross and Michael P Lamb, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
Many waterfalls are characterized by the presence of deep plunge pools that experience periods of sediment fill and evacuation. These cycles of sediment fill are a first order control on the relative magnitude of lateral versus vertical erosion at the base of waterfalls, as vertical incision requires cover-free plunge pools to expose the bedrock floor, while lateral erosion can occur when pools are partially filled and plunge-pool walls are exposed. Currently, there exists no mechanistic model describing sediment transport through waterfall plunge pools, limiting our ability to predict waterfall retreat. To address this knowledge gap, we performed detailed laboratory experiments measuring plunge-pool sediment transport capacity (Qsc_pool) under varying waterfall and plunge-pool geometries, flow hydraulics, and sediment size. Our experimental plunge-pool sediment transport capacity measurements match well with a mechanistic model we developed which combines existing waterfall jet theory with a modified Rouse profile to predict sediment transport capacity as a function of water discharge and suspended sediment concentration at the plunge-pool lip. Comparing the transport capacity of plunge pools to lower gradient portions of rivers (Qsc_river) shows that, for transport limited conditions, plunge pools fill with sediment under modest water discharges when Qsc_river > Qsc_pool, and empty to bedrock under high discharges when Qsc_pool > Qsc_river. These results are consistent with field observations of sand-filled plunge pools with downstream boulder rims, implying filling and excavation of plunge pools over single-storm timescales. Thus, partial filling of waterfall plunge pools may provide a mechanism to promote lateral undercutting and retreat of waterfalls in homogeneous rock in which plunge-pool vertical incision occurs during brief large floods that expose bedrock, whereas lateral erosion may prevail during smaller events.